Elise (3 stars)

This article is from 2018


Beat poetry's misogyny exposed

Like contemporary geek culture, the beat poets of the 1950s were a counter-cultural movement that failed miserably to address systemic misogyny: the absence of Allen Ginsberg, her former lover and 'mentor' from a post-mortem conversation about Elise Cowen's life and suicide becomes a motif in this dynamic recreation of a life ended too soon. Cowen's biography, examined here through the memories of her friends, lovers and alienated family, becomes a condemnation of the generation that imagined itself breaking free from the mundanity of domestic USA through drugs, jazz and rambling writings.

The ensemble cast conjure a selection of characters – some sympathetic, some squares, some hostile, who are called to interviews to discuss Elise: the action happens mostly outside of these formal conversations, with the exception of a self-justifying professor who sleazily explains away his behaviour towards his former student and partner. The strains and stresses of the beat lifestyle – not least in those places where it refuses to overcome patriarchal notions of gender – are exposed, even while the characters still cling to its tenets.

This lively script is driven by the energy of the performers. While it never quite escapes the pull of the stereotyped tortured artist and young people just trying to find their own way, it lays bare the sexual politics of the era and becomes a wistful plea for tolerance. Elise herself, having committed suicide, becomes a haunting absence, represented by the burnt remains of her poems and a corrective to the mythologizing of a movement that could not escape conservatism.

Pleasance Courtyard, until 27 Aug, 11.25am, £10–£11 (£9–£10)


  • 3 stars

Dixie Fried Theatre in association with Bristol Spotlights New York, 1962. Beat poet Elise Cowen commits suicide and her family incinerates all but eighty-three of her poems. Elise uncovers the story of this extraordinary poet, intertwining her surviving work with dramatised interviews, revealing the thrilling and…